Colin Hanks’ first major role was as the nerdy, unassuming boyfriend of a then-obscure Katherine Heigl in Roswell, a WB television series with a fickle cult following and a three-season lifespan. But if Heigl’s character seemed out of Hanks’ league—she was a beautiful alien, he was a consummate everyman—today, with credits that include Orange County, King Kong, W., and Mad Men, the studiously debonair Hanks is coming into his own at age 31. He’s now concurrently starring opposite two stunning costars: Samantha Mathis in the Broadway play 33 Variations, and Emily Blunt in The Great Buck Howard, which began its limited release in theaters on Friday after a successful run at Sundance last year. In 33 Variations, he plays the devoted male nurse to Jane Fonda’s character, an ALS-stricken musicologist obsessed with deciphering Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations (Mathis plays Fonda's daughter, and, eventually, Mike's girlfriend), and in Buck Howard, the assistant to John Malkovich’s egomaniacal mentalist-magician.
"I was doing all this research for a sitcom pilot with David Hasselhoff. The most unnecessary research ever."
Working in close capacity to such outsized celebrity personalities is a nerve-wracking prospect for a young up-and-coming actor. But Hanks’ demeanor, both in character and real life, complements these forces of nature with grace—warm, unpretentious, and disarmingly normal, his on-screen persona is, in fact, much like that of his father, Tom, who produced Buck Howard and appears in two scenes. The Daily Beast spoke with Colin about researching sitcom pilots for David Hasselhoff, raising money for his Tower Records documentary, and why Forrest Gump jokes aren’t funny.
This is your Broadway debut. What were your earliest stage performances?
Getting onstage is how I fell in love with what I do. I remember in second grade doing a performance of Where the Wild Things Are. In middle school I had a really great theater teacher. He personally adapted Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, with crazy lights and everything. It was the only time that all the high-schoolers actually came to see the middle-school play. I’m convinced they were all stoned.
What’s the most ridiculous question you’ve been asked about your father?
Oh, I’ve gotten so many. It runs the gamut of ridiculousness. Look, I get it. I understand that it’s a point of interest. But after ten years, you know, I’m not gonna laugh at somebody’s Bosom Buddies or Forrest Gump joke. I’ve pretty much heard them all, and they’re not that funny.
Any dorky hobbies when you were a kid?
I got them when I was older. I’ve become a vinyl-phile. Collecting vinyl. I play everything I buy—except one record that I will not listen to. My girlfriend got it for me. John Coltrane’s Blue Train, first edition, sealed, never been played. In perfect condition. And she’s like “Open it up! Listen to it!” No, that is wrong. That I cannot do.
I [also] write in a journal, which is ridiculous. Not only do I write in a journal, I type on a typewriter, and then I take the paper out of the typewriter, and then I glue it into the journal.
My dad is into typewriters. So he got me a typewriter, and I really enjoy writing on a typewriter—the sound, the bell, how crisp and clean it looks. It looks better than my chicken scratch.
Have you ever assisted or shadowed someone as your character does in Buck Howard?
I was going to do a pilot written by Joel Stein, based on his experience working at a big magazine when he was starting out. At the time he wrote for Time. So I followed him around for a day. It was funny, because I was doing all this research for a sitcom pilot with David Hasselhoff. The most unnecessary research ever. I wasn’t doing some big dramatic piece.
David Hasselhoff? I guess that didn’t work out?
That didn’t work out.
Excuse the hoary cliché, but all of your roles do have that “Everyman” quality—the easygoing guy in extreme situations, among more flamboyant characters. What are casting directors picking up on?
People say, “Wow, you’re really normal considering your circumstances.” I could be a lot worse, I suppose. A lot of people have said that about the play and Buck Howard: “Wow, you’re really just comfortable just being there!” Well, yeah, that’s the point! But I guess that means I’m doing something right.I much prefer things that are subtle. That’s what I really like about this play. At the end, Mike is sleeping. In the scene before that, he’s just awake drinking coffee trying to stay awake. It’s those mundane things I really like.
You’re working on a music documentary, right?
I am. I’m working on a documentary about Tower Records. I’m directing and writing it. We’ve shot some footage. We’re still trying to come up with extra cash. It’s about the rise and fall of the company. Russ Solomon, who founded it, started selling records out of his dad’s drug store in Sacramento in the 1940s. He ended up becoming the global music retailer, and did over a $1 billion of business in 2000. It started in an era in which drug stores and soda fountains were the norm—as [Tower] was rising, that American ideal died. And by the time that Tower was very big, the American ideal that Russ and Tower created—the place where you can go and buy music, talk to people who knew music—that’s dead now too. 33 Variations would not exist if it weren’t for a Tower Records clerk who told [the play’s writer and director] Moises Kaufman about the Diabelli Variations. He told me this on the first day of rehearsals and my jaw dropped.
You and Jane Fonda are both second-generation Hollywood. Did that ever come up?
No, not really. She mentioned it very early on. Sam [Mathis, daughter of actress Bibi Besch] is also second generation, and Jane said, “So, we’re all second generation, that’s interesting!” We said, “Yeah, maybe we’ll talk about that at some point.” That was sort of it. We never really talk about it. The only other time I’ve mentioned it, I was reading some article, and someone asked her if her father ever gave her advice about the stage. That just broke my heart. That’s always, for me, one of the questions that I can’t stand. “So, what’s the advice?” Like I’m going to give away the secret to Coca-Cola or something. I told her, “In a strange way, that just reminds me that it’s something that will always come up.”